On Friday, Sept. 2, as the nation marked the 71st anniversary of the end of World War II, Congressman Brian Higgins presented United States Navy veteran Leo Andrew Wabick with medals earned while serving during World War II.
"This anniversary is a time to reflect on the sacrifices made by Mr. Wabick and the thousands of others who bravely served during World War II," Higgins said. "On behalf of a grateful nation, it is our privilege to have this opportunity to present service medals earned over seven decades ago."
Leo Andrew Wabick was born in 1925. His parents emigrated from Poland in search of a better life in the U.S. In the early 1900s, they bought a house on Oneida Street in Buffalo, where they raised six children (four daughters and two sons). The Wabick family celebrated its culture and good life in this country by regularly listening and dancing to polka music.
When Leo was 16, he met Ann, the love of his life. He left Buffalo Public School No. 40 on Oneida Street early to work for his aunt and uncle on the family farm in Marilla. When he was old enough, he began work with the Pennsylvania Railroad. But his job and his life with Ann would have to wait because of the war.
Wabick enlisted in the U.S. Navy on May 5, 1944, shortly after his 19th birthday. He selected the Navy, because he remembered his parents dressing him in a sailor suit when he was a child. He chose service, because he was grateful for the opportunities this nation provided his family.
Seaman First Class Wabick was assigned to the USS Sarasota, which was sent to the Pacific Theatre of Operation during WWII. The USS Sarasota was commissioned on June 14, 1944, and, on Nov. 9, the ship arrived at Seeadler Harbor at Manus Island. The next day, the USS Mount Hood, another ship in the Harbor carrying 3,800 tons of ammunition, exploded, causing damage to other ships and hundreds of causalities. Thankfully, the Sarasota was not destroyed, but the mission of the ship immediately shifted to transporting the wounded to the nearest hospital.
The Sarasota's first major battle was at Luzon, where the ship was responsible for transporting assault troops to "Crimson Beach," "Blue Beach," and other areas while also picking up casualties for transport to medical facilities. But the ship's most noted involvement came during the Invasion of Okinawa, which is considered the largest invasion of the Pacific and the most deadly during World War II. Taking place from April 1 until June 22, 1945, more than 12,000 Americans were killed. The Sarasota transported troops to Guam and brought casualties to Saipan and Pearl Harbor. In total, the USS Sarasota earned three battle stars during World War II.
When the war ended, the USS Sarasota was assigned to the "Magic Carpet" fleet and its mission became bringing troops back home to the U.S.
Wabick recalled crossing the equator twice.
"When on-board the Sarasota, you don't just cross the equator, there is a ceremony," he said. "Those who never crossed were considered 'Pollywogs' and they were initiated by the 'Royal Officers,' those who previously crossed."
The ritual involved sliding through scraps of food. Wabick was pleased to move to "Royal Officer" status on his second crossing.
Wabick rose through the ranks throughout his two years of service in the Navy, starting as an apprentice seaman, advancing to the seaman 2nd class, seaman 1st class, and eventually became a shipfitter, third class.
On May 16, 1946, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy. A few short years later, he married Ann. They moved into the family home on Oneida Street and he returned to his job at the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1964, he went to work building bridges for Ernst Construction. He remained until his retirement in 1979.
Wabick's daughters contacted Higgins' office in an effort to honor their father for his service.
For his sacrifices, Wabick was presented with the World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Discharge Button and the Honorable Service Lapel Pin.
The ceremony took place at the Buffalo Naval and Military Park in front of the WWII memorial on the 71st anniversary of the official end of World War II. The presentation included a wreath-laying ceremony in remembrance of the more than 60 million people killed during the war.
Today, Wabick still lives in his childhood home on Oneida Street, and has passed down the family's love for polka music and dancing with his six grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Wabick's years in the home and constant watchful eye looking over neighbors has earned him the nickname "Mayor of Oneida Street."